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|"The Arrogance of Power"
2 Samuel 11:1-15
One of the intriguing aspects of the Bible, and
especially of the old testament, is the rise and fall of practically
And in a rather thick book entitled The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction, by Norman K. Gottwald, Gottwald makes the point several times that the civilization of the Bible was apparently in the habit of regularly rising to new heights and then crashing.
So what was the cause of all this? Well, probably many things, but I would suggest to you, as indicated by the title of this sermon, that at least one of them, or one aspect of them, was the arrogance of power. Put simply, POWER CORRUPTS.
I suppose it all started in the Garden of Eden, when two spoiled children wanted even more. But this morning I want to draw your attention to another story, the kind of story that we could imagine finding in the morning newspaper, or maybe on "tabloid television." It begins with the eleventh chapter of Second Samuel: "In the spring of the year, the time when Kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem."
Now, notice that war was apparently not a sporadic thing, something that nations engaged in when they got upset with each other, or greedy for what another nation had, but rather was almost an HABITUAL event.
Just as gridiron wars take place in the fall of the year in our culture, so REAL wars take place in the spring of the year for the Israelites. And it is also apparent that making war was part of the job description of kings.
But on this occasion, for no particular reason, King David stayed home. And by the time we're done with the story, we will likely be led to the conclusion that he would have been better off going to war.
"It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful."
Now, that's my kind of house. But don’t tell my wife. Actually, it reminds me of college towns I've lived in, when, in the spring of the year, young women begin to appear on the lawns to sunbathe. It's a wonderful time of year to take long walks by the sorority houses.
So David is curious. "David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, "This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite."
And up to this point all we have from David is healthy curiosity. And AT this point, a red flag should go up, alarm bells should sound, a stop sign should show itself.
David should know, knowing that Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah, that there are boundaries to his behavior. At least, that is MY quaint, old-fashioned attitude.
And didn't the tenth commandment say, "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife"? But David is about to do what Eve did in the Garden. David can't resist the forbidden fruit. In the midst of power--and I don't care WHOSE power it is--we can always find weakness.
"So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house."
Now, the Bible doesn't provide us with all the salacious details, but we don't need them. We each have a good enough imagination to know what's going on here. But what I wonder is this: Why didn't David know when to stop? Of course, there will be those who would argue that it was all Bathsheba's fault, that she shouldn't have been so tempting, that SHE could have stopped him. But I don't agree.
I believe that the responsibility was with David, and he blew it. But then, HE obviously didn't think so. So what DID he think?
Well, I would suggest that David thought to himself, "I'm the king and I can do anything I please. And I don't FEEL like going to war this spring, so I'll just stay home and play." And he probably also thought to himself, "It doesn't matter that Bathsheba is married. I'm the king. And besides, Uriah is off in battle. He'll never know anyway."
Well, our sins sneak up on us. "The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, "I am pregnant."
And now David, who, because he is king, and can do anything with anybody he chooses, has to live with the consequences of his behavior.
I often wonder about the womanizing behavior of some our contemporary celebrities, including politicians, entertainers, professional athletes, television evangelists, and even pastors. Do they UNDERSTAND the implications of their behavior?
If sexual behavior is out of control, what does that mean for a politician's decision-making? What does it mean for an evangelist's or a pastor’s theology?
"So David sent word to Joab, "Send me Uriah the Hittite." And Joab sent Uriah to David."
And in the meantime, David might be wishing that Uriah had already been killed in battle, so that he would never know what has happened.
But if he's alive, and if he can get back to Jerusalem, and if HE can lay with his wife, then MAYBE David can get himself off the hook and Uriah will think that the child is his. If, if, if, maybe, maybe, maybe. David is reduced to plotting and scheming.
And URIAH is likely wondering why on earth David has called him back from battle. What could be the reason for this special trip?
"When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going."
So, David just wants a report from the front lines. "How's the war going?" That seems innocent enough. That won't arouse Uriah's suspicions. And it was probably not uncommon for the King to send for messengers to provide just such information.
And so far, David has managed to cover up his ulterior motives. So far, he's getting away with it. And isn't that the sub-conscious question asked by many who abuse power: "What can I get away with?"
And as long as such abuse can be covered up, or bought off, it will likely continue, if there is no fear of judgment, human or divine, no fear of punishment, no fear of negative consequences.
"Then David said to Uriah, "Go down to your house, and wash your feet." Uriah went out of the king's house, and there followed him a present from the king."
Now, understand that Uriah has come directly from battle to the King's house. And now that the report has been made, the official mission has been accomplished. When David tells him to "go wash your feet," he's not concerned with Uriah's feet.
That's just a way of saying, "Go home, relax and enjoy yourself." Actually, there are a couple of ways of interpreting that. In those days the primary mode of transportation was your feet.
And without benefit of comfortable shoes or well-surfaced sidewalks and highways, feet not only got very dirty but also very tired. And you only washed your feet when you were stopping somewhere to stay for a while. And David DEFINITELY wanted Uriah to go home and STAY there for a while. But there is a second interpretation.
In the Hebrew scriptures, referring to one's feet was a means of euphemistically referring to sex. And even today, we have ways of talking about sex without talking about it.
"But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king's house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house."
Now, this can sound strange to us, because it sounds like somebody sleeping on our front porch. But realize that the King's house was probably enormous, and the entrance would have included servants' quarters. In fact, the entrance was probably like a house itself, and David likely never knew what was going on there, it was so far removed from his activities.
But suddenly, David's plan isn't working out. Uriah isn't going home to Bathsheba. Uriah STILL doesn't expect anything, but it's BECAUSE he is not suspicious that he hasn't gone home. He's probably ready to head back to the battle.
"When they told David, "Uriah did not go down to his house," David said to Uriah, "You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?"
And David is probably getting a bit antsy now. He's got Uriah back to Jerusalem, but he can't get him to go home to his WIFE. And if he can't get him to go home to his wife, how can David cover up his own illicit behavior? And yet, the question is an innocent one, and a kindly gesture.
David seems to be saying, in spite of his ulterior motives, "You deserve a break! Why don't you take it? Go home! Spend some time with your wife!" And nothing in this message should arouse Uriah's suspicions.
But listen to the response of Uriah, and hear the contrast between the character of David and the character of Uriah.
"Uriah said to David, "The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? “As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing."
And I can hear Uriah saying, "How can I relax and enjoy myself while there is still a War going on? While my commander and all my fellow warriors are still camped in the field?" Now THAT'S dedication. THAT'S commitment. Uriah's body may be in Jerusalem, but his heart's on the battlefield. So David has to think up another ploy.
"Then David said to Uriah, "Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back." So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day."
But Uriah REALLY wanted to go back immediately. So David couldn't detain him indefinitely while he cooked up new schemes. He HAD to give him a promise of sending him back soon. And David has one more day to figure out how to get Uriah to go see Bathsheba.
Now, at this point David is beginning to stretch his luck. Tomorrow Uriah leaves Jerusalem, so David is under some pressure to get Uriah to do what he WANTS him to do. Desperate measures are called for. And desperate measures are exactly what David is going to take.
"On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house."
I don't know why David thought that getting Uriah drunk would get him to go home, but the plan didn't work. And now, Uriah heads back to Joab and back to the battle.
Well, as I suggested earlier, David may have hoped, when he sent for Uriah, that he had already been killed in battle. But now that he can't manipulate matters in Jerusalem, he'll have to try to manipulate them on the battlefield.
"In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, "Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die."
And Uriah carries in his hand a letter to Joab in which is written his death sentence. I guess that if you're as powerful as King David you can get away with that sort of thing. At least for a while. But consider the irony here. Uriah was a decent, respectable man, who didn't deserve to die. David, on the other hand, turns out to be a real scumbag. Now I'm not saying that is characteristic of David's life; but I think it IS characteristic of what the abuse of power does to people. Well, the story isn't over. David is NOT off the hook. It may be premature to draw conclusions, but we'll continue the story next week and discover what justice is in store for David.
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